WSU's Walden decries officials

In the seventy-two hours since Washington's excruciating loss to USC in Los Angeles, yours truly has managed to calm down. It'll forever haunt me to not know what might have happened in those final two seconds. But Washington made enough mistakes to warrant a loss, and Husky Coach Tyrone Willingham has demonstrated class and restraint in handling the game's aftermath.

Still, to get a different perspective, I spoke with former Washington State Cougar Coach Jim Walden. Walden coached the Cougars from 1978-1986, and then at Iowa State from 1987-1994. He currently serves as color commentator alongside the legendary Bob Robertson, for the Cougar football radio broadcasts. I asked Walden if he saw the end of the Washington-USC game.

"Yes, but if you're asking a Cougar fan to be in sympathy with that, well I'm not sure what to tell you," he said with a laugh. "If you go back to the 1998 Rose Bowl against Michigan, you're not going to get any sympathy from the Cougars about getting one more play. We were close enough that Ryan Leaf could have thrown one into the end zone. So even though it's been several years, there are still Cougar fans screaming about not getting that final play from that Rose Bowl.

"But from the USC-Washington game, I don't know where the confusion was," said Walden. "And I don't know why the Washington guys weren't over the ball and ready to hike it and spike it, or whatever-- but it just seemed like there was a lot of confusion. There was no winner there. The officials there are less to blame than the players. I'll bash the officials as much as the next guy. But when I believe they're right then they're right. You cannot ask a group of officials to let you have something with two seconds left than what they would have given you earlier in the game. If that's the way they set the ball in the first quarter, then that's the way it's going to happen in the fourth quarter too. So sometimes we get down to those last three ticks and we want reality to be different than what we saw."

I pointed out to Walden that it seemed like when the officials started the clock, the Husky players were still standing two or three yards off the line of scrimmage.

"Yes, that's how it seemed to me," he said. "And you know what? USC Coach Pete Carroll may have had more of a complaint, for him to stand over there and watch a group of officials talking instead of setting the ball and starting the clock. He probably had more of a complaint. I mean, Isaiah Stanback should have been over the ball! There should have been an offensive team lined up at the ball, waiting to see what the officials were going to do. But the officials seemed to do what they were supposed to do. Set the chains and wind the clock! So it's hard for me to lay that one at the feet of the officials."

Expanding the scope of the conversation, I asked Walden about his take on Pac-10 officiating in general. One aspect of officiating worked Walden into a froth.

"Well, it's probably not fair to say specifically about Pac-10 officials," he said. "If all I see is one group, it's hard for me to say they're worse or better than anyone else across the country.

"I just have my own feelings about officials in general," he said. "I don't think there are five officials in the United States that really, truly know what pass interference is. I saw one of the worst calls I've ever seen in my life recently in the Penn State-Minnesota game. I saw the worst possible situation for an official to make a call on an absolute no-call pass interference play. It extended a drive for Penn State and allowed them to win a game. It was absolutely horrendous!

"My point is, I wonder how many former coaches have been brought in to the head of officials in all the United States for a meeting? Bring in two or three coaches like myself who are involved with radio and have coached before. There are several of us out here. Why don't you bring us in and ask us what offensive pass interference is, what defensive pass interference is, and what is a classic no-call. Ask us what kind of calls that the coaches want made. I'll bet you with all my heart and soul that's never been done.

"Now the officials will say, `We know what it is, the rule says blah blah blah,'" said Walden. "And yet, no call gets screwed up more often. They either call it the wrong way, or they make calls when it should be a no-call. They give defensive backs NO leeway, and they give receivers 100% leeway. According to the rules, the ball is free when it's in the air. Yet, you'll see offensive people push defensive people in the back, and there's no call. And you'll see a receiver go over the top of a defensive back and people will say OH! WHAT A GREAT CATCH! But if a defensive back even lays a hand on the receiver to do the same thing, you'll suddenly see four flags flying onto the field."

I pointed out to Walden that earlier in the USC-Washington game, the Huskies benefited when the Trojans were called for pass interference near the goal line. It was a terrible call.

"Well, we also had one in our game last Saturday night in Corvallis," said Walden. "I saw one of the worst pass interference calls I've ever seen in my life. It was to the Cougars' benefit, but it was embarrassing. Our receiver Jason Hill pushed the Oregon State defender halfway down the field and they threw a flag. And we said on the radio, `Oh, man, this is definitely not going our way.' As soon as the flag came out, I was like, `Well that's good. You can't just let wide receivers push defensive backs like that.' Well, they came out and said that it was pass interference on that defensive back, and I went, `OH MY WORD!'

Walden went on to discuss the current state of officiating in college football.

"Sometimes bad calls go for you, sometimes against you, such is life," he said. "It works both ways. But even in working both ways, it verifies what I say: In the game of college football, the coaching and the playing are starting to pass the management of the game. I believe that. The coaches and players spend far more hours working on their game than the officials, who don't have the chance to do that.

"I don't find the officials to be arrogant," he added. "They just live in a world that is kind of a cocoon. They're the most protected people in sports. Derek, let's just take your USC-Washington game this past Saturday. Why isn't there an observer who goes in after the game and talks to the officials and then comes out and answers one question about a particular play? He's not going to let you sit there and ask well `What about that other play in the third quarter?, or whatever.' Because then it just becomes an argument, it becomes a case of harp-harp-harp. But the way it is right now, with every officiating crew, if there is a major screw-up, they don't have to have a representative come out and answer for it. Can you imagine a football coach or player not coming out and explaining after a game what happened? You don't have to have the actual officials come out, but you could have an observer come out and explain what the officiating crew felt they did right or wrong.

"But the most protected people in sports are the officials, umpires and referees," continued Walden. "It's like they're frail. They're ceramic people. They don't have to discuss their mistakes and they don't have to explain their mistakes. When you're a coach on the sideline (during a game), you can ask one of them to come over and explain something and meanwhile you're so mad that you could bite their head off. But they'll give you fifteen seconds and that's it.

"In my seventeen years as a Division I football coach, as God as my witness, I didn't ever feel like a crew of officials came onto the field that day to screw me," he said. "I believe that with all my heart. I don't believe that they ever got together in the dressing room before kickoff and said, `Let's stick it up Walden's tail!' I just don't believe they did that.

"But did I ever see officiating crews that were lazy, that were out of place, that weren't in harmony? Yes. I saw one last Saturday night in Corvallis. And I said this: The officiating was as bad as the playing. There were two teams struggling and the officiating got caught up in that. But they're not supposed to get caught up. They're the administrators of the game and they're supposed to be above the fray.

"I truly believe that the officials in this country need to get together," concluded Walden. "The conference commissioners need to get a little stronger, and they need to evaluate who is leading their officials, how much training the officials are getting. I don't mean that we need to get new officials. I just mean that we need to give more training for the officials that are already there."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories